Old Friends

I was pleasantly surprised to open up NewMusicBox a couple of days ago and see James Falzone staring back at me—his face marking a great feature article about him written by Devin Hurd. The surprise was not only because it was a much-deserved spotlight on one of the special musical talents from Chicago, but also because I’ve known James since we were both undergrads at Northern Illinois University playing in the sax section of the Jazz Lab Band. He was a monster clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer from very early on, and I don’t think anyone back then would be surprised at how successful his career has become.

This has got me thinking about one of the well-worn mantras that I find myself continually repeating to my own students—you can’t have enough friends, especially while you’re a student composer. Speaking from experience, looking only towards the future and forgetting to take advantage of the opportunities that surround you in the present is an easy trap to fall into at any point in your life, but most of all during your student years. When you get to know someone over pizza and beers, as well as in late-night study sessions, it’s hard to imagine them—much less yourself—being a successful professional colleague with whom you can collaborate. Too often we focus so much on where we’re going that we forget that we’re already somewhere and miss opportunities that are literally sitting right next to us.

From the composer’s standpoint, it’s obvious that the performers around you (at any point during your career) are your best bet to write for, but the same sentiment is true for performers, who are often so focused on learning repertoire that they forget about the composers down the hall and the opportunity to have new music written for them early in their careers. Many of the professional composers I’ve talked to see this concept as a basic fact of musical nature—you may get a chance to work with other professionals down the road, but the colleagues who surround you early on will be the springboard for those future collaborations.

My own career as a composer would not be where it is if not for several friends who liked my music and took the chance to commission me to write for them. One commission by a trombonist friend of mine from undergrad days, Tom Stark, set in motion a series of works that have really expanded my career in the brass field, and just this evening I’ll be treated to the world premiere of a new work written for the violist Aurélien Pétillot and contralto Elizabeth Pétillot, for whom I have written numerous compositions and who have remained staunch advocates for my music. These relationships are so valuable, so necessary for any of us to not only gain recognition within the music community but to continue to work and thrive as creative artists that we neglect them at our peril.

Do you have any stories of collaborations with school friends that ultimately turned out to be much more down the road?

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